“In Denmark, we spend almost 35 % of public expenditure on the social sector, and family interventions have doubled in cost over the last decade or two. However, despite this, research shows that children leaving out-of-home care more often become unemployed, are in poorer health, less educated and more prone to crime than their peers with similar social characteristics. In other words, they don’t seem to benefit from their placement. I think one of the ways of remedying this is stronger focus on outcomes and tools for measuring those outcomes among the professionals working with the children.”
Knud Aarup, CEO of the National Board of Services in Denmark, was one of some 400 participants at the 13th EUSARF conference in Copenhagen in early September. SFI hosted the conference, at which members of the European Scientific Association on Residential and Family Care for Children and Adolescents (EUSARF) – and others with an interest in the field – gathered for three days of workshops, speakers and general exchange of ideas.
No target, no goal
One of the keynote speakers addressing the issue of use of research evidence was Fred Wulczyn, director of the Center for State Foster Care and Adoption Data in Chicago. He shared the results of a project conducted by the Center concerning the use of research evidence in child welfare agencies in Illinois. Some 500 professionals participated by answering an online survey.
Wulczyn and the project define ‘research evidence use’ as a broad term. It covers not only the use of evidence-based interventions by agencies, but more importantly to what extent they actively seek out or generate research evidence concerning their work, as well as how they interpret the evidence and use it in a decision-making context. Seen from a researcher’s point of view, the results were less than uplifting.
The project showed that less than 60 % of the respondents work in agencies which produce statistical reports. Furthermore, less than half use research evidence to set a baseline and target for improvement when they implement a new policy or practice.
“It’s very difficult to know whether you’ve gotten there – i.e. whether a practice has been successful and reached the goal – if you didn’t set a target from the outset. Our project shows, that there’s very little of this thinking going on at the local level – and what’s more, our project shows that those with most client contact rely least on evidence,” said Fred Wulczyn from the podium.
Knud Aarup recognised many of the observations in the study presented by Fred Wulczyn:
“I’m sorry to say so, but I think a study such as this would give a similar result in a Danish context – we still lack focus on outcome and tools for measuring that outcome among frontline personnel”.
Fred Wulczyn pointed to a further need for education of frontline personnel as one of the solutions, but Knud Aarup has a different perspective:
“The level of education among Danish social workers has only gone up in recent decades. For us, I think it’s necessary to develop the ways we work with evidence in the professional fields”.
A natural first step, explains Knud Aarup, has been to introduce various evidence-based programmes, often originated in the US or Canada, adapted to fit a Danish context. Now it’s time to take the next step:
“I think we need to move toward what you might call evidence-informed practice – where we invite professionals to share information on a given method or practice that they find effective in their daily work with the children, and initiate research into that method. It needs to be a two-way street, and I believe it will be easier to implement good and effective practices, which stem from the professional field, back into that field”.